Stephen Byers' future was in fresh doubt last night after senior Whitehall sources contradicted the Secretary of State for Transport's version of events surrounding the departure of his department's information chief.
Mr Byers claimed yesterday that the civil service had dealt with Martin Sixsmith, but officials said the minister intervened to insist the director of communications be dismissed. The latest revelations – after a day of bitter claim and counter-claim between the minister and his ousted press chief, and renewed opposition calls for Mr Byers' sacking – will deepen the crisis at the department. It has also dismayed Downing Street as it struggles to throw off allegations over the Mittal affair.
One source told The Independent last night that the chain of events began with a meeting between Tony Blair, his aide Alastair Campbell and the head of the Cabinet Office, Sir Richard Wilson, at which it was decided the spin doctor Jo Moore should leave the ministry.
Their decision followed allegations that Ms Moore suggested rail statistics should be "buried'' on the day of Princess Margaret's cremation. When Mr Byers was told of the Prime Minister's decision, he said Mr Sixsmith would have to go too because of his alleged involvement in leaks of the statistics.
Yesterday, however, the Transport Secretary claimed that the departure of Mr Sixsmith was a "personnel matter'' and responsibility lay with Sir Richard Mottram, the Permanent Secretary at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions.
One official said Mr Byers was being "totally disingenuous about his involvement in the row. Sir Richard would not have told Martin to have resigned off his own bat. At that level of the civil service, the secretary of state would be involved.''
Another official flatly contradicted Mr Byers, saying that the Transport Secretary was the prime mover in the departure of Mr Sixsmith.
The crisis reignited after Mr Sixsmith told a Sunday newspaper he had been "resigned" by his political master, only learning of his fate on a radio report as he returned from a hospital appointment.
Mr Byers looked uncomfortable yesterday as he repeated his version of events on ITV1's Dimbleby programme. Pressed on Mr Sixsmith's claims, the Transport Secretary said: "These are matters that need to be dealt with by his employer, who's not me, but Sir Richard Mottram, who's the head of the department."
He added: "What I know is that Sir Richard ... told me that Martin Sixsmith had agreed to resign as director of communications in the department. I also felt in order to have a fresh start in the department because confidence had been lost – there wasn't the trust that needed to be there – that it would be good if Martin Sixsmith went as well. Someone perhaps has forgotten exactly what did happen."
But Mr Sixsmith said last night this was "definitely incorrect", adding: "I know for a fact that Byers has been involved. If you resign from your job it is probably something you would remember doing. And why did they spend a week trying to offer me a deal to keep quiet?"Reuse content